Facebook Twitter

She’s the Air Force’s first female F-35 demo pilot, and her flying will leave you breathless

Capt. Kristin ‘BEO’ Wolfe is the commander of the newly certified F-35A Lightning II demonstration team, stationed at Hill Air Force Base

SHARE She’s the Air Force’s first female F-35 demo pilot, and her flying will leave you breathless

Capt. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe flies an F-35A Lightning II near at Hill Air Force Base on Thursday, March 5, 2020, while training for upcoming airshows.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — In a heart-stopping move, U.S. Air Force Capt. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe’s F-35A Lightning II screams upward in a vertical climb, loops onto its back, and spirals into a dive that briefly simulates a stalled engine before effortlessly leveling out and accelerating away.

The pedal turn is just one stunning maneuver as, for 18 breathtaking minutes against the backdrop of the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains in the blue skies above northern Utah, Wolfe displays unbelievable skill and daring, pushing the limits of physics, physical endurance and gravity. She is the commander for the Air Force’s newly certified F-35A Lightning II demonstration team — the first woman to hold the position.

The demo team is part of Air Combat Command assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, where Wolfe is an F-35 flight instructor. The F-35 is the U.S. military’s latest fifth-generation fighter jet that combines state-of-the-art stealth technology, interoperability and lethality, along with the ability to penetrate dangerous enemy airspace and defeat threats on the ground and in the air.

During the team’s demo Thursday, Wolfe performed a dozen high-skill maneuvers, including a max afterburner takeoff, high-speed vertical climbs, a high-speed figure eight, inverted flat rolls, a slow-speed move that looks like the jet is floating through the air before climbing like a roller coaster, then making an inverted turn to resume flying in the same direction she just came from.

While some — like the assembled media on this sunny but chilly morning — might consider Wolfe’s exceptional aerial prowess mind-blowing, the veteran second-generation military pilot passes off learning to fly as something that just happened for her.

“My dad served for 28 years and then, as I grew up, I was always around aviation,” she said. “It wasn’t a dream of mine when I was a little kid, but I kind of grew into it and honestly grew to love it.”

“I was around a couple female pilots with my dad in the military,” she said. “The first time I actually remember seeing a woman fly was at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I saw the Blue Angels. I got to take a picture with a female Blue Angel they had and that was really cool.”

Having been a pilot for nearly a decade, Wolfe said being able to display her skill and the capabilities of the F-35 to audiences is something she is looking forward to.

“It’s pretty cool. The coolest part is to know that you’re the only one out there going to do the demo and to show people on the ground a little bit of what this jet is capable of, and just make some noise — go loud and low and fast,” she said.

Wolfe and her team members hosted a “launch, routine and recovery” for media Thursday — one of the last practices ahead of the team’s first appearance at the Yuma Air Show next week at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona.

The team was certified earlier this week at the Air Force’s Heritage Flight Training Course at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona — an annual training event for all of the branch’s single-ship aerial demo teams.

This will be the team’s first season as a part of Air Combat Command. Previously, the demo team operated out of Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in conjunction with Air Education and Training Command.

The F-35 can create a maximum of up to 9 Gs of force, Wolfe explained, though pilots seldom reach such a stressful level. In physics, G-force describes the acceleration of an object relative to Earth’s gravity. A pilot in a steep turn may experience forces of acceleration equivalent to many times the force of gravity, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.


Diagrams of maneuvers performed by the U.S. Air Force F-35 demonstration team at Hill Air Force Base.

Hill Air Force Base

Fighter pilots like Wolfe wear a flight suit equipped to mitigate the effects of high G-forces during flight. Even with the myriad high-stress maneuvers, Wolfe said she has become accustomed to the various types of physical effects, thanks in large part to the high-tech gear she wears in the cockpit.

“On bottom we’ve got what’s called a G-suit. It protects basically when we start pulling Gs and the gravity pulls the blood down toward our feet, we want to try to keep it up in the brain,” she explained. “This gives about 1 12 to 2 Gs of protection and inflates with air as we start to pull Gs and pushes all that blood back up into the brain.”

As a veteran aviator, she said her body isn’t adversely affected during her demo flights.

“I’ve been doing this so long honestly that you don’t notice. The gear protects you a lot, so that helps,” she said. “The G strain is just automatic at this point, so you don’t really realize it, unless you’re doing it nonstop — 9 Gs — for a very long period of time.”

Currently, the team is set to perform at 20 events across the country, highlighting Wolfe’s aviation skills as well as her colleagues’ maintenance, jet-launch and recovery capabilities. This summer, the F-35 Demo Team will also be performing at the upcoming 2020 Warriors over the Wasatch Air and Space Show on June 27-28 at Hill Air Force Base — the team’s new home.